what light through yondan window breaks?

It’s not quite completely official yet — still waiting for the formal invitation — but the process has started by which I will be going for promotion to yondan, or fourth-degree black belt. I will be going alongside Senpai Charles, with whom I also went for my nidan (second degree) in 2013 and my sandan (third degree) in 2017. We will be joined by Gordy, an advanced brown belt going for his shodan (first degree), and there may be some kids going for their junior shodan as well.

I am, at once, thrilled and scared to death, as the promotions are much more intense at this level. While there are some disciplines that just automatically give you another stripe on your black belt after being in rank for a certain amount of time, Shuseki Shihan Paul doesn’t do that (which, honestly, is as it should be — black belt stripes should be earned). For yondan and above there’s additional testing on top of the three promotion sessions.

This will all happen in mid-November, and between now and then I’ll be running in Van Cortlandt Park, going to every class I can possibly go to, and also attending fighting classes every Tuesday night. Assuming I make it through, both Charles and I will have a title change, as yondans are formally referred to in our discipline as “sensei.”

In Japanese martial arts tradition, you don’t wish someone luck. Instead, you say, “ganbatte,” which means “try your best.” Which is really all we can ever do. And I love the sentiment (so much so that I used “Ganbatte” as the title of a short story that later won an award….). So I won’t ask y’all to wish me good luck, but if you want to throw a “ganbatte” my way, I wouldn’t object…..

Tuesday night’s all right for fighting

Yesterday, for the first time in eighteen months, there was a fighting class in our dojo.

The recent apocalypse has played merry hell with karate, but we’ve managed to keep things going. We did virtual classes last spring, then switched to hybrid classes over the summer. The dojo policy has been that masks are worn during kids classes, while adult classes masks are only required for the unvaccinated — though the new NYC regulations mean that unvaccinated adults can’t train in the dojo anymore.

In any case, since most of our kids are 12 and under, and therefore are unvaccinated, we’re still not doing a kids fighting class (which was my responsibility back in the before-times). But last night, we brought back the adult fighting class, vaccinated folks only.

We took it easy on our first night back to it. Of the nine people sparring, four had never taken a fighting class before (they all joined last spring or later), and me and the other black belts present spent a lot of time working with them and showing them the ropes. We were also easing back into it ourselves, doing 1.5-minute rounds instead of our usual two-minute ones, avoiding any below-the-belt or above-the-neck contact, and generally keeping it lighter than normal.

I’m pleased to say it went great. I didn’t die, the new students all did well, and a fun time was had by all.

I used to hate fighting class, and it’s still not my favorite part of karate. But last night, before class I was feeling the same nameless dread I used to feel before fighting class when I was a color belt and would keep making feeble excuses not to come to class. That feeling passed by the time class started, though. Thank goodness.

It’s good to be back….

Go Ju Kata

This morning, I did an amazing thing.

Our karate discipline is pretty small — we only have five dojos, and they’re in five different countries: our honbu, or headquarters, here in New York, plus dojos in South Africa, Italy, Chile, and Japan. This morning at 8am Eastern Time, representatives from all five dojos gathered — some in their training space, some in their homes, some in large outdoor spaces — and together we all did fifty katas in two hours.

Katas are my absolute favorite part of karate. A kata is a form, a series of movements and techniques in sequence. The vast majority of katas are twenty steps, though some are ten or fifteen, and once you hit black belt they get even longer. (As a third-degree black belt, I have two katas that are just over fifty moves.) I love the way you lose yourself in the movements, in the techniques.

Today’s event was just spectacular. We did twenty-one different katas, each of them at least twice, some of them three times. Besides just the joy of doing katas, there was the added wonderfulness of being able to do them in concert with our friends around the world. The folks at the other dojos are also dear friends in addition to being fellow martial artists. The Italy dojo welcomed me and Wrenn wholeheartedly when we visited in 2018, and the students and teachers from all four of the other dojos have all made visits to us at honbu and it’s been wonderful every time.

One of the great frustrations of the past year has been the inability to interact in person with people. Doing so over video conferencing is a practical substitute, but it’s not always an emotionally satisfying one. Today, though, it was, as video conferencing was the only way to make this work. After all, we’re not just five different dojos in five different cities and different countries, we’re all in different time zones and in different continents! And through the magic of technology, we were able to be together even as we’re separated by so much distance, united in our love of and skill with karate. Watching us all move together in unison on my laptop screen was just fantastic.

We’re hoping to make this an annual thing. I, for one, can’t wait to do it next year….

my Sunday feeling

This has been an emotional weekend. Yesterday was the memorial for Dave Galanter. If you missed it, it’s been archived on Dave’s memorial web page, which also has lovely testimonials from people, as well as a donate button if you want to help the family in these troubled times.

That was but one of several Zoom sessions this weekend. Among the others were Saturday afternoon’s karate class, Saturday evening’s poker game, and then this evening, me and several of the black belts in our dojo had a nice gathering. Normally, this weekend would be the annual dojo holiday party, which we obviously couldn’t do. But we had twelve black belts gathered over Zoom — including one person from our Italian branch! — which was lovely.

In addition, Wrenn and I put up our tree! (That’s the picture above.) We went back and forth about doing the tree this year, and then decided we wanted to be as festive as possible, if for no other reason than to celebrate that this shitshow of a year is coming to an end.

Also, I’ve been plugging away at Feat of Clay, the sequel to A Furnace Sealed. I started the book on the 1st of December and twenty days later, I’m 10,000 words in. Not the best pace ever, but not the worst, either.

Christmas is this week, and we’ll be doing it the same way we’ve done everything that involved gathering in groups prior to mid-March 2020: over Zoom. Not perfect, but it’s better than nothing. Honestly, Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, and Streamyard have saved my sanity this year.

Tonight’s task is to write up “Living Witness,” which will be the final Star Trek: Voyager Rewatch entry for the year, as Tor dot com is taking the last couple weeks of the year off (though I will still be providing reviews of each episode of Star Trek: Discovery when they drop on the 24th and 31st).

How are you all spending your holidays?

my Sunday feeling

On this day eleven years ago, after a whole bunch of fighting, the event in the above picture happened: Shuseki Shihan Paul (he was Shihan Paul then) tied a black belt on me for the first time.

It still doesn’t feel entirely real over a decade later. Being physically fit was never really a big part of my self-image, even though I’ve been a martial artist for almost a third of my life now.

My Facebook memories over the past week or so has been full of black belt stuff, as not only was my shodan promotion eleven years ago, but my sandan promotion was three years ago. (My nidan promotion happened in March, seven years ago.)

I’m still training during the apocalypse. Our dojo did classes over Zoom over the spring, and then in mid-summer switched to hybrid classes — people can train in the dojo wearing masks and keeping their distance from the other students, or they can continue to train over Zoom. I’ve been sticking with the latter option, as I’m perfectly fine training from home over the laptop, and I’d rather leave the few spaces in the dojo to people who can’t train online for whatever reason.

And I’m teaching again! Two people have requested private lessons, and I’ve been teaching them — one an advanced brown belt kid who needs to learn a ton of stuff at this level, the other a white belt who moved far away but still wants to train, and I can work with her over Zoom quite nicely.

Meantime, the writing continues apace. I’m finishing up a campaign for the Star Trek Adventures role-playing game, I have a new project that I need to write up some pitches for, I have to outline the next Bram Gold book, finally, and I need to do a bunch of things for Patreon before the month ends (I’m massively backlogged on TV reviews, I have to write this month’s movie review — of Vampires vs. the Bronx — and I have to write this month’s vignette).

Also had socially distant dinners with my parents two of the last three nights, which is getting more challenging as we go into fall and it gets too cold to eat outside. We may go back to what we did in the spring and do dinners over Zoom.

This week will also see me and Wrenn voting. Early voting started in NYC this weekend, and the lines have been incredibly long. We’re hoping that three days in and on a weekday, the lines will be shorter. Certainly our early-voting place had a line that went on for several blocks.

I can’t emphasize this enough: VOTE. It’s always important, but it’s particularly important this year. People died so every citizen could have the right to have a voice in their government. You should exercise that right.

How was your weekend?

15 years of karate and counting

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On 20 September 2019, I spent four hours at the dojo. I taught a private lesson, I did two separate hours working with black-belt promotion candidates on various things they need to know, and I had my usual Friday night fighting class.

This was appropriate behavior for that day, as it was also the fifteenth anniversary of the day I stepped into the dojo for the first time.

On 20 September 2004, at the age of 35 and facing myriad physical infirmities, and having spent my entire adult life not exercising anything but my futility, I decided to take up martial arts.

Fifteen years later, I’m a third-degree black belt, one of the senior members of the dojo, one of the regular teachers at the dojo, and if you’d told me sixteen years ago that that would be the case, I’d have thought you were talking to the wrong person. But becoming a karateka has been one of the best things I’ve done with my life. Besides the physical and mental benefits, it’s also turned me into a teacher, which I absolutely love doing.

So happy anniversary to my karate career. Here’s to the next fifteen years…..

Osu!

(The picture is the oldest one I could find of me doing karate, from my promotion to advanced green belt in 2007. I couldn’t find any pics of me from any earlier, sadly.)

 

on my black-belt promotions

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I blogged about each of my three black–belt promotions as they were happening. I was talking about that on Facebook with my buddy and fellow black belt Mike Agostinelli on the thread under the link to this blog entry, and thought I’d put them all in one post for easy reading….

Shodan promotion:

Nidan promotion:

Sandan promotion:

Essays:

 

from the archives: thoughts while in the midst of my nidan promotion

I wrote this piece on 23 March 2013, after the second day of my promotion to second-degree black belt. I’m reprinting it here mainly because I like the discourse on kata in particular, and it’s a nice reflection of my views on karate and on my own journey from overweight, underpowered 35-year-old white belt to the in-much-better-shape 50-year-old third-degree black belt I am today.

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The second day was less grueling than the first, but that was partly because we’d already been through this, partly because we were doing the stuff that I know and love best: kata and various self-defense and prearranged fighting drills. This is my favorite part of karate, especially the kata.

We have three sets of kata: First are the basics, the three Taikyoku katas and the five Pinan katas. These are common karate forms — the links in the previous sentence are to YouTube videos of those eight forms being performed in the style of Kyokushin, from which my style derives, and while there are differences in how we do certain parts, the overall feel of the katas are the same as how we do them. Then there are the five katas that were developed by the founder of our discipline, and then there are the makuso katas.

The makuso, or meditation, katas are my favorite, as they are complex and graceful: Sanchin (the oldest known kata), Geki Sai Dai, Yantsu, Tsuki No, Sai-Ha, Tensho, Geki Sai Sho, and Seiunchin. That last one is the one I and three other shodans performed at our dojo’s 20th anniversary party, and I also adore Yantsu.

Of course, the real test comes during Sanchin and Tensho. Those two katas are primarily done with ibuki, or deep breathing, where movements are slow and strong and the body is tight and firm. Both kata are spent in sanchin dachi, a very stable stance (here’s a picture). During promotions, it’s kicked up a notch, as we did both those katas while several black belts do everything they can to destabilize us: punching us in the stomach (with or without handpads), hitting us in the back or thighs with handpads, kicking us in the thighs and stomach, pushing against our punches, and so on. (Here’s me getting pounded during my shodan promotion three-and-a-half years ago, for an idea, though the picture does not do it justice, particularly the part last night where Senpai Ryon used me as his punching bag for the second half of Sanchin Kata.)

What was especially amazing about that experience was how little I moved around during that part of it. I remember my shodan promotion — that picture I linked to in the previous paragraph has me at a 90-degree angle to where I started because I got moved around so much. This time around I was being abused much more than I was three-and-a-half years ago, but I barely moved from my original spot.

You have to understand, I was the stereotypical weakling who got sand kicked in his face by the bully on the beach. In high school, we did a production of West Side Story, and I was cast as Gladhand, the nerdy guy who ran the dance, because honestly who the fuck else would I play? The idea that I could be in any way physically strong has never been a part of my worldview.

And yet, there I was last night, several black belts (some of whom are fighters who score high in international fighting tournaments) were just wailing on me. These are the people who would’ve kicked sand in my face not that long ago, and here I was barely being moved by them.

That’s weird. Seriously. Eight-and-a-half years of karate, and I can’t even process the notion that I’m strong, even though I spent last night not only doing that, but also dozens of pushups and any number of other physically intensive activities for two hours straight. It just doesn’t fit with my self-image, y’know? I’m still surprised when people tell me how strong I punch during fighting class, too…

Anyhow, that was the first part of the evening. The second part was when we each discussed our essays. Once the promotion’s done, I’ll post my essay here, but mostly I talked about how helping Shihan teach and teaching myself has been an incredibly enriching experience. It was also great to hear Jorge, Charles, Cliff, and Rey talk about how karate has affected them, through the ups and downs of their lives. It’s a pleasure and an honor to go up with these people, who have become good friends, and it was especially nice to hear their stories about their lives.

What especially struck me was a story that Cliff talked about Senpai Joe, a black belt who helped him immensely when he was starting out at our dojo, telling him to calm down and take it easy and just generally looking out for him. It floored me — and I got to say so in front of everybody a few minutes later — because I could tell the exact same story except substitute me for Cliff and Cliff for Senpai Joe. It fit nicely with the theme of my own essay, which was about how you learn from the people who came before you and you try to pass that on to the next bunch of people. And, as I’ve mentioned on the blog before, Cliff was hugely inspirational to me when I started out. Shihan was the teacher, but Cliff was who I wanted to be when I grew up. And in a way, I have, as Shihan talked at length about how grateful he is to the two of us for all the help we give him especially with the kids classes (which have grown quite large).

Tomorrow morning is sparring. Tomorrow afternoon, I stumble home and lapse into a coma……

opening the mirror

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Today was our dojo’s annual Kagami Biraki. The term literally means “opening the mirror,” and it’s a traditional new year’s workout that is about reflection (hence the mirror metaphor) and setting the tone for the coming year.

When I first started training, it was only open to adults, but in recent times, Shuseki Shihan has also allowed teenagers, and any kid who is a brown belt or higher regardless of age.

Today we had 40 students attend, and what was especially nice was that we had a ton of kids as well as adults, plus every belt color was represented: four white belts, four blue belts, two yellow belts, four green belts, ten brown belts, two junior shodans, four shodans, one junior nidan, three nidans, two sandans (myself and Senpai Charles), and all four of our yondans and our one and only godan. It was a glorious, intense, fabulous workout. We did hundreds of punches and kicks and dozens of pushups and lots more. We were all sweating profusely and feeling great, if exhausted.

And then we ended with a final set of one hundred of the following: a squat, followed by two groin kicks. (Groin kicks are low, so less strain on the hamstring and knee.) Shuseki had us all get in a circle and hold onto each others’ shoulders so we could squat and kick as a unit. We all fed off each other, the energy building, the kiais getting louder and louder as we reached a hundred.

What was especially impressive was watching so many pre-teen kids and lower belts who are not as well conditioned as, say, the fifteen black belts totally keeping up with us and doing the thing. It was a wonderful joyous example of how we can all push ourselves to do more than we think we can. It’s one of the two things karate has given me that I will always treasure, the knowledge that I can do more than I think I can. (The other is teaching, which has been awesome.)

While 2018 had its ups and downs outside the dojo, it was a very good year in the dojo, and last year’s Kagami Biraki was also superb, a good omen. Let’s hope today’s fantastic workout is the same.

Osu!

 

I have a frozen shoulder

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So last October, during a sparring class, I wrenched my shoulder. At first I figured I just pulled something, but it kept hurting every time I raised my arm. I iced it and took it easy on it and all that stuff, and also avoided sparring class. I’ve been taking it easy on right-hand techniques and also doing only one-handed pushups. (My left arm is getting mighty, y’all…..)

Because of the trip to Italy that took up most of November, I didn’t want to start any medical processes that would have to be interrupted by the trip, and besides which, I already had an appointment with my primary-care doctor to discuss blood work for early December, shortly after Italy.

At that appointment, she looked at the shoulder and immediately scheduled me for an X-ray and referred me to an orthopedist.

I got the X-ray a couple of weeks ago and saw the ortho this morning. He diagnosed me with a frozen shoulder. Likely I strained or sprained something in the shoulder three months ago and scar tissue formed — a common side effect among people with hypothyroidism, which I’ve had for 26 years. The scar tissue is what’s preventing my proper range of motion.

So the good news is, I don’t need surgery (at least not yet), and I don’t even need to go for an MRI. The ortho gave me a steroid injection and prescribed physical therapy for me for the next couple of months. And I keep doing what I’ve been doing at the dojo, which is handy.

That’s my medical update. You may now return to your regularly scheduled Tuesday, already in progress………………..